This CHEO team watches out for kids at risk of abuse and neglect

This CHEO team watches out for kids at risk of abuse and neglect


When injured children are brought to the eastern Ontario’s children’s hospital for care, Dr. Michelle Ward and her team are there to examine them for signs of abuse or neglect.

“If a child comes in, [and it’s] a very young child that has a few fractures — that’s really unusual,” Ward told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning

“It could be that they have an unusual medical condition causing that, or it could be that something else had happened to the child.”

The nurses, mental health specialists, social workers and photographers who make up CHEO’s team are always on call. They provide treatment, document the child’s injuries and try to determine their cause. If they find cause for concern, the information is passed on to social workers and police.

A team of watchful doctors and nurses at CHEO are spotting kids at risk of abuse and maltreatment. Ottawa Morning’s Hallie Cotnam met the people on the front lines. 8:02

Assessing children and caregivers

Ward said children sometimes come in with underdeveloped gross motor skills, which most kids would normally develop.

“We do see kids who haven’t had the opportunity at all — either because they were maybe living in a vehicle, or kept most of the time in a high chair, or because their parent had a phobia of germs and would never put the child on the ground,” Ward said. 

Those are real cases her team has dealt with, she added. 

Registered nurse Abby Browne rifle through some of the items in her cart that her team at CHEO uses to assess parents’ interactions with their children. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Abby Browne, a registered nurse with the team, said she carries various items with her that can assess a parent’s interactions with their child — including puzzles.

She said the team will sit outside the door and observe how they perform together.

“Is their parent trying to engage and help them, or is their parent on their phone?” she said. “Sometimes we do hear, unfortunately, parents [who] might be yelling.”

Info important for social workers 

There are various reasons why children might not share their stories of abuse or neglect, Browne said — they’re too young, too afraid, even too attached to their guardian.

“They don’t realize that this physical abuse was wrong, and they still have so much love for their parent,” Browne said. “It’s difficult [for them] to see maybe they can’t go home to mum or dad or that things need to change in their life.”

Sometimes these rock bottom moments can lead … to much better futures.– Dr. Michelle Ward, CHEO

Social workers depend on accurate reports to understand a child’s situation, said Debbie Hoffman, service director of the Children’s Aid Society in Ottawa.

“If a child is seriously hurt and the parents provide us with an explanation, [then] we have to understand its plausibility, and we have not got the skills to do that. We’re social workers.” she told Ottawa Morning. 

400 cases last year  

The team at CHEO dealt with 400 cases of abuse and neglect last year, Hoffman said.

Even so, Ward said that in the past 15 years, she can count on one hand the number of times someone intentionally set out to hurt his or her child.

“If people could see the families that I see, and realize how much people want the right thing for their kid but maybe can’t provide it … it would help them understand how I can spend my days doing this work,” she said. 

Ward said it’s important to speak about these sorts of situations openly, because it removes stigma and allows parents and children to feel more comfortable seeking help. 

“Sometimes these rock bottom moments can lead … to much better futures,” she said. “Not only for the kids, but for the whole family.”

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